Judy Heumann (1947–2023) Disability rights champion… and my special bond with her

Judy Heumann died this week at the age of 75. Due to polio, she was wheelchair bound and she became a powerful advocate and champion in the fight for rights for people with disabilities — for more than 50 years! Have you heard of her? Her name is all over media right now. Check it out! https://www.nytimes.com/2023/0...

If you work in education, especially special education, you may remember that during the Clinton administration, she served as head of OSEP — Office of Special Education Programs in the US Department of Education. After that, she had many other accomplishments — focused on improving the lives of people with disabilities.

If you’re a movie buff, you may have seen the documentary, Crip Camp on Netflix — an inspiring and fun Oscar-nominated movie about a camp for children with disabilities. She’s a star in it. I recommend it.

If you’re a reader, you may have enjoyed her memoir, Being Heumann.

And if you’re me, you feel a special bond with her — even though I never met her in person. Back in the mid 60’s and early 70’s, she and I started our professional lives — to become teachers in New York City — in similar, yet extremely different ways.

A huge difference in our parallel stories was timing. Hers happened in 1970 while the civil rights era was in full bloom, and mine happened in 1964, alas, right before it.

Both of us sought a teacher’s license by the NYC Board of Education, but were denied one. I, because I still had a slight foreign accent (from Holland) and Judy because she needed a wheel chair. Today, we know these as “national origin discrimination” and “disability discrimination”. The world is very different now, but we all live in our own time.

My story. After graduating from Barnard College in NYC and planning to teach there, I had to pass one final step before receiving a license — the city’s required “speech test”. As I understand it, the test aimed to weed out foreigners with foreign accents, which ludicrous with no COMMON SENSE because I planned to teach French and my accent in French was good then! And since when is the NY accent the model!? I thought NYC was the ultimate melting pot. But I digress…. That test changed my life.

This is how the test went. After asking me a few questions and hearing my answers, the red-headed proctor, seated at the…

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA, is a reformer, thought leader, lawyer, and author. Check out her book, Special Education 2.0 and her medicine bottle art!